About 11 months ago, during the concluding week of the 2021-22 regular season, I had the privilege of watching the New Jersey Devils end their campaign with a context-appropriate whimper. In a couple games with no stakes and no real purpose, the Devils delivered a pair of home losses to the similarly crummy Detroit Red Wings by scores of 3-0 and 5-3. Highlights from those games included Pavel Zacha missing the net by a yard or two on one of the cleanest breakaways you’ll ever see in the 3-0 loss, and the Devils getting outshot 35-23 in the season-ending 5-3 loss (with the Devils putting up 40 shots on goal combined in the two games).
The scene was grim in both instances; the crowd shuffled in, they bought some overpriced foodstuffs from one of the five concession stands the team bothered to open, they watched the Devils get stuffed in a locker by a team that would fire their entire coaching staff 10 seconds after the season ended, and then they shuffled back out. I got the tickets for the finale for free from my ticket rep as a “thank you” for having a partial plan, but you probably could have gotten in the door for less than 10 bucks anyway. The two concluding home losses were part of a six-game losing streak to close the season and a broader listless run of 17 losses in the Devils’ final 22 games. In a season where expectations and hopes were high at the outset, the Devils closed it out feeling as deep in the abyss as ever.
Jumping back forward to today, things are a little bit different, to say the least. The Devils clinched their spot in the playoffs on Saturday, as the out-of-town scoreboard flashed a Florida Panthers loss heading into the first intermission of their 73rd game of the season. A season after the Devils were emphatically eliminated from the playoffs in an 8-1 slaughter at the hands of the Boston Bruins in their 67th game, the Devils flipped the script and were locked into the postseason after just their 72nd game. Despite it no longer being necessary to their clinching scenario, the Devils went ahead and won their 73rd game of the season anyway, pushing them to the 100-point threshold for the first time since 2012.
The scene at the Prudential Center on Saturday night was a far distance from the putrid end to the season prior. It was a raucous crowd and, by my count, the 16th sellout of the season, just a year removed from the Devils selling out the building three times in the entire home schedule (and only once after mid-November, mostly thanks to invading Ranger fans). The Devils were back in the promised land and, unlike the one time that happened in the last decade, the sense was not one of “we’re just happy to be here.” The Devils have real, honest expectations again, and while the scene was jubilant when the “CLINCHED” graphic appeared on the scoreboard, there was an unmistakable undercurrent that the target was now aimed higher.
For the entirety of my childhood and into my early years of adulthood, the Devils represented a model NHL franchise. Certainly, there were disappointments and heartbreaks, but the Devils were always in the mix and as close of a lock to be in the playoffs as you could get in the NHL. The past decade represented a radical departure from the former status quo. The baseline expectation for a Devils season became failure, bordering on catastrophe. The opening two games of the 2022-23 season, both 5-2 losses, looked familiar enough in that framework to generate an immediate fan revolt, as “Fire Lindy!” echoed through the first crowd of the season at the Prudential Center.
That loss against the Red Wings in the home opener, the very same team that put the embarrassing exclamation point on the prior season, would end up being the low water mark for the 2022-23 Devils. New Jersey would embark on a blistering 18-1-1 stretch not long after that low point and, aside from a few stumbles, scarcely look back from that point. They remain third in the league standings, sitting on 100 points with nine games still left on their schedule. They have a decent chance of setting the franchise record for most points and most wins in a season, just one year removed from bottoming out at 63 for their lowest (full-season) total since 1986. With multiple players performing at star levels and a young core that is largely locked in for years to come, the Devils have suddenly seemingly found their way out of the wilderness after years being adrift.
This is a little simplistic, of course, but being a fan of a sports team is basically making a bet. In exchange for your time, money, and emotional investment, you are hoping for a return, typically in the form of wins, exciting plays, awe-inspiring players, and, when the stars truly align, championships. For the first time in quite a while, the Devils feel like a bet that is paying off.
We don’t know what the postseason has in store for these Devils, aside from the obligatory stress of playoff hockey. It could be it could be exhilaration, it could be heartbreak, it could be anything in between, but with multiple weeks left in the regular season, we already know the Devils will be a part of it. Rather than the flash in the pan that 2017-18 represented, the 2022-23 Devils truly feel like the start of something. Even in the absence of postseason success this year, we will know that the Devils truly matter again in the league’s landscape, and with the age of their core as well as the additional top prospects still on their way, they appear poised to matter for quite a while. Whatever the upcoming months and years hold for these Devils, it certainly is nice to feel like the sky is the limit again.